Sorry To Bother You review: Back in the summer, the British branch of the film Twittersphere was nearly in meltdown. It was a matter of distribution. Two titles, both surrounded by a very loud buzz, looked destined never to find their way into UK cinemas: Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade (despite a screening at this year’s London Sundance) and Boot Riley’s Sorry To Bother You. The kerfuffle subsided in September when it was announced that Riley’s movie was a late addition to the London Film Festival programme (Burnham’s title is looking likely for a UK release as well) and it’s easy to see why it grabbed so much attention.
A more savage, surreal satire is hard to imagine. Not that it should be anything else: soft centred ones – and there have been plenty of those down the years – usually miss their mark. Not so here. Riley has plenty of targets in his sights, hits them fair and square and pulling punches just doesn’t come into it. The story centres on down on his luck Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) – known to his friends, with more than a little irony, as Cash – who gets the job of last resort. In telemarketing. But he turns out to be spectacularly good at it, is promoted to being a Power Caller and is top of the tree at that as well. His number one client is Worry Free, not a description but a company offering an apparently idyllic lifestyle. Too good to be true? Well, you know what they say …..
It’s almost impossible to sum up Riley’s debut as a director in just a few words. “Innovative”, “outrageous”, even “unhinged” describe aspects of it, but none do justice to the whole. It’s all of that and more, a satire that also manages to be a modern screwball comedy, one that’s witty, original and sometimes full-on hilarious. Yet there are times when it is deeply uncomfortable because some of what the audience is shown is just a hair’s breadth away from reality. Like the workers striking for better wages at the telemarketing company who are beaten up by the police. Or the power of social media when a video of Cash being on the receiving end of a lobbed cola can turns him into an instant celeb, leading to his appearance on a truly disgusting reality TV show – another target in itself.
Riley is aiming at a list as long as your arm, but primarily in his sights are capitalism and exploitation, so there is an element of a call-to-arms in the film. And, while his vision is sometimes uneven, there’s no questioning its originality. When Cash starts out as a telemarketer, we’re shown just how intrusive his calls are: he literally drops into the lives of the people he’s calling, complete with his phone and desk, regardless of what they might be doing at the time – making love included. Every single one of those moments gets a big laugh, even though there’s at least one that provokes laughter borne of discomfort.
But with so many themes and targets, there is the sense that perhaps Riley has been over-ambitious, stretched himself a wee bit too thin. A few less would have made for an even sharper film, tipped with tungsten as it were. That’s not to deny its impact. It doesn’t give any answers – in fact, it doesn’t give any answers at all. It takes a while to think through, which is no bad thing, and it is most definitely worth seeing. For its imagination, innovation and – a real rarity in these days of risk averse Hollywood – sheer balls!
Sorry To Bother You review by Freda Cooper, October 2018.
Sorry To Bother You review at the BFI London Film Festival 2018.
Sorry To Bother You was screened at the London Film Festival on 11, 12 and 14 October and is released in the UK on 7 December 2018.